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“You know the guy who killed Versace?” asks Chris, the leathery-featured guy driving the van. He points toward the channel to our right, “built by the Army Corps of Engineers,” and mutters something. “Remember Versace?” Chris insists, but the question is lost on the man riding shotgun, whose cruise isn’t until Sunday, yet who is still this airport shuttle’s first drop-off. We leave the man and his family at a Holiday Inn, and continue the slow automotive crawl toward the Port of Miami.

Chris likes playing tour guide. “I wish I could take you all day,” he says, his sun-sagged face turning toward us. “I’d take you to Al Capone’s house.”

In fact, our destination is a bit more surreal: the Carnival Imagination cruise ship, which with its massive red and blue fin and its blocky body looks like a beach-bound leviathan. (Completing the picture, a spiral waterslide behind the fin resembles a spray of urine.) It’s Day 1 of the Bruise Cruise.

We enter through a glass-boxed structure, where we spot our first Bruisers. Some of them are already wearing their pink Bruise Cruise bracelets, obtained the night before at a pre-party in Miami. But that’s not their only costume: They’ve got sleeveless shirts that show off their tats. Fedoras of various stripes. Tight cut-off jean shorts (I’ve brought a pair, too).

William, a documentarian and “independent entrepreneur” standing behind me in line to register, has done it one better: His shorts are leopard-print. He’s singing The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” He asks me if I’m excited. I am. He and a friend have come to the Bruise Cruise from Queens, N.Y. He mentions something about filming Calvin Johnson recently.

We each obtain a “sail and sign card”—our room cards for the trip, and our currency on the boat. We head up an escalator, decline to be photographed by a smiling Carnival employee, and snake through several planks toward the Imagination. The sun is high outside, and as I approach the portal, all I can see is a pair of interlocking sine waves—the neon trimming, it turns out, that surrounds the bar at the center of a garish, Vegas-lite atrium. I hear a pianist playing the Cheers theme. Actually, it might be “Captain Jack.”

We drop off our luggage in our rooms, and head to Bruiser central: the Xanadu Lounge. On the stage, the drum kit and a banner both read “Bruise Cruise.” We’re starving, and walk up a floor for a late buffet lunch.

There’s a lot of Bruisers, and a lot of people, period. But—contrary to my initial thought—the regular cruise-goers don’t seem to mind the hipster delegation. This is a Carnival cruise, and some of the rooms were going for a third of the price of admission to the Bruise Cruise. We’re the privileged ones. We’re also mostly white. Otherwise, the vibe on the Carnival Imagination is pretty racially diverse, and seems fairly lower-middle-class to middle-class. Street clothes are the norm all around.

Finishing our meal, my eyes turn toward the television in the bar. It’s on CNN. Americans and Brits are being ferried out of chaos-strewn Libya. Their boats kind of remind me of the Imagination.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery